By Ellen Morgan | Illustrations by Gabriel Cunnett
Published: Wednesday, August 11, 2021
The wide-open road, the great unknown, the land down under – Australia was made to be explored, and what better way to do it than in your very own caravan? New to the home-on-wheels life and don’t know where to start?
Like many things, living on the road is often simpler in theory than in practice. Along with endless delights, travelling in a caravan can present a few difficulties, but those hurdles aren’t stopping a growing number of South Aussies hitching up new wheels and hitting the road.
Between 2010 and 2020, there was a 40% increase in caravan registrations in South Australia, according to the Department for Infrastructure and Transport. In 2020 alone, the number of registered caravans on SA roads recorded was 52,712, compared to 37,600 in 2010.
But before you jump on the proverbial bandwagon, clicking open your deck chairs and popping up the trestle table (to hold your nifty camper cups), here are some pointers to keep in mind when selecting a caravan.
Follow this guide and you can say “goodbye caravan novice, hello expert”. Trust us, you’ll be shopping for matching caravan linen in no time (aloha, tropical print).
Research and reasons
So, you’re looking to invest in a home on wheels (congrats!), but you’re not sure where to start? First, it’s essential you do your research and think about where and why you want to travel.
Google is a great place to begin. Perform a few searches, test the waters of the caravan world and see what’s up for grabs. There’s a lot out there, so identify what you like, what fits your budget, and what specifications top your priority list.
When starting your search, consider whether you’re on the hunt for a motorhome, a caravan or camper trailer, and what you’re willing to spend. Then, to avoid having 803 tabs open in your web browser, list a few of your favourite makes and models on a notepad, or even some of your must-have features before thinking about visiting a dealership.
Remember, it can be easy to get wrapped up in the latest and greatest features when you’re in a showroom, and even easier to forget why you came in the first place. It’s just like heading to the supermarket hungry, looking for a healthy dinner but leaving with eight packets of chips.
Need a big fridge for family feasts on the road? Need three beds so your sister can come along for the ride? Need a shower because you can’t live without life’s creature comforts? Pop them on the list, but distinguish your needs from your wants.
Going to the dealership with a clear head when it comes to balancing your aesthetic dreams with your budget limitations can lead to a much smoother purchasing process.
Consider where you’ll be travelling in the short term, as well as down the track, and how you plan to get there. This will ensure your purchase is fit for purpose and lasts you longer than just one trip of a lifetime.
For instance, if you enjoy staying in caravan parks with bathroom facilities, you might not need a shower or fancy bathroom onboard.
If you’re looking to journey to the outback, with little signal and tricky terrain, consider satellite connectivity and off-road capabilities.
The right fit
Not only is it important the caravan you pick sits within your budget and includes your must-haves, it also needs to be the right fit for your vehicle, your travel companions and your driveway.
Remember when Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) bought a Christmas tree too big for his house in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation? If we’re honest, it’s an all-too-common problem when making big purchases for the home. The same applies for caravans – they’re getting bigger and bigger, and while your dream van might look reasonably sized in the sale yard, it must fit in your driveway or shed.
Some people keep their caravans in off-site storage facilities, especially if they’re not used regularly, but if you intend to keep yours on-hand, check the measurements carefully before you sign on the dotted line. Don’t risk driving it home, only to find it takes up your entire front yard.
Also keep in mind your vehicle’s weight limitations. If you’re planning on attaching a caravan to your current set of wheels – be it a sedan, wagon, ute or SUV – you must know its gross vehicle mass (GVM) and the maximum towing capacity specified by the vehicle manufacturer.
The GVM is the maximum legal weight your vehicle can be, including passengers, fuel, accessories like bull bars, roof racks and loaded equipment. Towing specifications can generally be found in your vehicle’s handbook. And, of course, you will need to adhere to the towbar ball weight specifications stipulated by your vehicle’s manufacturer.
When you have determined the maximum towing capacity of your vehicle, you will need to ensure the caravan on your wish list does not weigh more when fully loaded with all your goods than what the towing limit specifies.
You can use your caravan’s aggregate trailer mass (ATM) to determine if it’s the right fit for your vehicle. The ATM refers to the weight of the caravan, including payload (what’s loaded into the caravan) and the jockey wheel. Your caravan will have a stated maximum ATM.
Some vehicles (usually off-road vehicles) may also have a gross combined mass (GCM) which is the combined weight, incorporating the trailer or caravan being towed.
Proper packing and weight distribution
Loading the caravan and your car for a road trip can be a bit like playing a three-dimensional game of Tetris. Pack too much in, and you risk overloading your setup. Not only is this a nightmare to unpack – exceeding your vehicle’s towing capacity is unsafe and illegal.
Only pack what you need and ensure you weigh your belongings or, even better, weigh your entire vehicle before you head off into the wild yonder. Items such as generators, water and oil stores can often be forgotten when mentally working through your weights, but they can be kilo gobblers when it comes to the final weigh-in.
There are several public weighbridges in South Australia that can weigh your setup before you hit the open road. Head to Mitchell Park, Wingfield, Jamestown or Encounter Bay (among others) and simply drive your car and caravan or camper trailer onto the weighbridge to find out its GCM. Visit industry.gov.au to find one near you.
Alternatively, before you leave home or your campsite, you could use a towbar weight scale to make sure you’re not exceeding the recommended limit for your vehicle’s tow ball. Purchase one from your nearest Repco (RAA members get 5% off ) and ask our technical advisors if you have questions about how to use them, or vehicle overloading generally.
To avoid uneven weight distribution, place heavy items low to the floor of your caravan and distribute them evenly on both sides. If possible, pack these items over the axles, and place lighter luggage higher or in cupboards to maximise space.
If your towbar allows for it, a weight distribution hitch can help evenly distribute the weight between your vehicle and caravan. Some vehicle manufacturers do not allow the use of weight distribution systems, so check your vehicle’s manual, or ask your vehicle manufacturer.
By packing your caravan smartly, you can help reduce sway. That means a more comfortable, confident and safe journey for everyone.
Staying safe on the road for caravanners is about more than just packing right and adhering to the correct weights. It’s also about following some simple techniques and
driver’s etiquette when you have a caravan hitched.
Before you set off, check your caravan’s lights, your tyre pressure and mirrors. As with all driving, keeping in mind the upcoming road surface, speed and weather conditions is important.
Be mindful that towing a great deal of weight behind you will significantly reduce acceleration, increase fuel consumption, increase the distance it takes to safely stop and change how your vehicle handles. For example, snaking in wet weather or on dirt tracks, even with an off-road-compatible caravan, is a real risk drivers need to be aware of. Snaking is when a caravan sways from side to side, due to excessive speed, unsafe loading, dangerous weather conditions, or unsafe driving. Added weight can also increase your stopping distance, so it’s important to reduce your speed earlier when approaching intersections or slower vehicles.
Considering fellow drivers is also imperative for the safety of all road users. It can be a great idea to bring a UHF radio with you, particularly if you’ll be travelling on popular freight routes. They let you communicate with other road users, which can be useful if you’re moving a little slower and want to warn nearby motorists. UHF radios can also keep you up-to-date on road hazards and roadworks.